The U.S. Air Force Hypersonic X-51A Waverider Program
Just recently the U.S. Air Force teamed up with Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to sign a new contract. The group will continue working on the X-51A Waverider program that the Air Force began in 2004. The hypersonic flight program was given a $300 million budget to develop a hypersonic jet plane that could fly five times faster than the speed of sound.
On May 1, 2013 the military tested the X-51A Waverider. The unmanned aircraft reached a top speed of Mach 5.1 in a little over six minutes. Not long after reaching this speed the unmanned aircraft crashed in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Air Force confirmed that the test flight was the longest flight ever for a hypersonic aircraft.
The military used a B-51H Stratofortress to carry the unmanned aircraft to 50,000 feet. When the aircraft separated from the Stratofortress the hypersonic jet reached Mach 4.8 in just 26 seconds. The unmanned aircraft was powered by a solid rocket booster. At 60,000 feet the aircraft separated from its rock and reached Mach 5.1. The hypersonic jet uses an air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet engine according to the military.
The military was happy with the test results because it proved that you could use a scram jet engine to reach hypersonic speeds. The military won’t quit here and their next-generation hypersonic vehicle will go even faster according to Endsley. Mica Endsley is the Air Force’s chief scientist on this project.
Currently the Air Force and DARPA are considering the material they will use in this project. The material must work with the hypersonic speed and have a guidance system that can point the plane in the right direction.
Meanwhile, DARPA is working on different projects that enhance their studies into hypersonic flight. Back in 2011, DARPA conducted tests using a HTV-2 bomber. The company built the prototype hypersonic jet. When the jet was tested it reached a top speed of Mach 20 before the aircraft lost control.
Currently the Air Force continues to work on other hypersonic projects. One of the projects is a hypersonic weapon that could be fired from an aircraft traveling at high speeds. Furthermore, DARPA has another project they have worked on since 2014. The Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) will launch a small satellite into orbit. According to DARPA officials these different projects could be the foundation for our future fleet of hypersonic vehicles.
Image: US Air Force